Electrocompaniet AW250 R Stereo Power Amplifier Review
David Price cowers under the weight of this gigantic powerhouse…
AW250 R Stereo Amplifier
Electrocompaniet is one of hi-fi's great enigmas. Although the Norwegian brand isn't particularly well known worldwide, it has a cool cachet that comes from its cult nineteen seventies 25W power amplifier, which gained a reputation for engineering innovation and excellent sound. A decade later, the company's name appeared in the sleevenotes of two of Michael Jackson's greatest albums – Thriller and HIStory. This came about due to Jackson's recording engineer Bruce Swedien being a big fan.
Bruce Swedien, 5 times Grammy Award Winner Recording Engineer and Producer
1977's 'The 2 Channel Audio Power Amplifier' began Electrocompaniet's success. It was the result of a paper submitted to the 1973 AES conference by Dr Matti Otala, which presented the (then new) idea of transient Intermodulation distortion (TIM). The story goes that Norwegian record producer Svein Erik Børja took this concept to the company, which refined it and produced a transistor amplifier designed to eliminate this type of distortion. The brand duly made a name for itself and built up the business to where it is now. It's had several ownership changes along the way and is now run by CEO Bjørn Kndingstad. The factory is based in Tau, just outside Stavanger – where all design, manufacturing and assembly takes place.
Electrocompaniet has two parallel product ranges – the EC Living Line and the Classic Line. The former offers compact, convenient systems and/or speakers, while the latter – from which the AW250 R stereo power amplifier is taken – is an old school, unreconstructed range of hi-fi separates. This two-channel dual-mono design puts out a claimed 2x 250W RMS per channel into 8 ohms of Class AB power. Thanks to its stiff, so-called Floating Transformer Technology power supply, the power doesn't fall away into lower loads; it punches out 2x 380W into 4 ohms, 2x 625W into 2 ohms and a surprising 2x 1,100W into 1. Boom!
Whilst some amplifiers at this price offer similar headline power outputs, I can think of few that claim to drive really low impedances like the AW250 R. Its maximum quoted peak current of 100A means that it isn't playing around. And to make life even more interesting, it features a balanced link to additional amplifier(s) for bi-amping, and can be bridged to deliver what Electrocompaniet claims to be up to four times the power.
That's a lot of welly, and makes its highish price more than understandable – as does its 39kg weight which takes Viking DNA to lift by yourself. This is an old school behemoth high-end stereo power amp; no switching power supplies or Class D to lighten the load here – and no rack mounting handles to help you lift it out of its box either! Vital statistics are 483x450x210mm (WxDxH), so you'll need a suitably capacious equipment rack too.
Stylistically the AW250 R is a curious combination of nineteen seventies bruiser and eighties kitsch. The casing and rear panel is robust pressed steel which is very well finished, albeit in the way you'd expect from trucks or farm machinery – there's no elegant, Japanese-style brushed aluminium to be seen. The front panel is black with an added layer of thick, high-quality Perspex; it looks decent enough but seems dated now. All the switches, sockets and other miscellaneous parts are of very good quality, and even the four feet have clever little isolation springs built-in. Overall it presents as a high-quality product, albeit quirky.
If lifting the AW250 R doesn't convince you that its extra-large case is full of heatsinks, then listening to it will. This is an old school muscle amp – closer to the sort of thing you'd expect to come out of the USA in the nineteen seventies than Norway in the twenty-twenties. It has major amounts of gut-thumping power that takes loudspeakers by the scruff of their necks, and shakes them like an Alsatian dog with a rag doll. Even my reference Yamaha NS-1000M loudspeakers – which are bad news even for some high-end power amplifiers – were well and truly put in their place.
These speakers are actually pretty sensitive at around 91dB/1W/1m, but are brutally revealing of any power amplifier that hasn't got blood and thunder in its makeup. They need a really gutsy amp to drive them properly, and the AW250 R is precisely this. Its sound is dominated by power and load driving ability, because every time you play music with a strong bassline, you hear it underpinning the song all the way through from beginning to end. Switch back to something run-of-the-mill, and you'll be amazed how easily it runs out of breath by comparison.
Howard Jones's early eighties What Is Love? was a perfect example of this, with its classic analogue synthesiser thumping out the bassline, alongside a vintage drum machine. The AW250 R caught these old school analogue electronics brilliantly, serving up a wonderfully impactful bottom end with seemingly endless reserves of power and great dynamic ability. Interestingly when the track reached a crescendo, the sound actually got noticeably louder rather than compressing like many power amps would. It seemed to have a direct line to the power grid, making me wonder what my next electricity bill will be.
Move to more urgent sounding electronic pop like New Order's Vanishing Point – recorded five or so years later with digital synths – and you get the same sensation but on steroids. Vast tracts of bass flapped my flares and blew my hair back behind my ears, as I nervously watched cracks appearing in the plaster on my ceiling. Interestingly though, the big Electrocompaniet carried the track with greater sophistication than I had expected. It's something of an iron fist in a velvet glove, having a dark, smooth tonality that never shouts out at the listener, even at high volumes. With its bell-like chiming synths, this recording can sound shrill with the wrong equipment, but there was no sense of any tinselly upper midband here.
As well as its barrel-chested power delivery and smooth tonality, the other thing that strikes you is the AW250 R's stereo imaging. It's upfront and immediate, with no sense of getting a panoramic view from the back of the concert hall. Instead, you're taken to your seat down in the stalls, where you soon find yourself standing to get the full, visceral listening experience. This amplifier separates out different strands of the mix well, and allocates them to a specific place in space where they stay for the song's duration. Steely Dan's Home at Last was quite a thing to hear, as this amp was in total control. Instruments in the mix just seemed to pop up from nowhere and assume a bold and dramatic position, loitering with intent to be heard. I was totally beguiled by the glass-clear piano sound that was centrally located, along with the rhythm guitar and saxophone work sitting off either side.
Another takeaway from this song was the sense of swing that the AW250 R brings to a recording. Ultimately it's not the most agile, fast-on-its-feet performer I've heard in rhythmic terms, but it has pendulum-like predictability that's very satisfying to listen to. Music just ebbs along in a solid, dependable way with a great sense of momentum. That makes it fine for all types of music, especially rock. REM's Shaking Through can appear to amble along with the wrong power amplifier, but the big Electrocompaniet sounded jaunty enough. It's not super fast and ultra fleet of foot, rather you get the sense that the music is being bulldozed along, and nothing's going to stop it, not even a brick wall.
The AW250 R has an awful lot going for it, then. Many big power amps end up sounding slow, lifeless and workmanlike – but this was a truly enjoyable listen. It has strength in depth; it's not just about being able to blast power out. Instead, it's impressively transparent, well detailed and expansive in its stereo imaging too. Yet nothing is perfect, and my main reservation takes us back to the beginning of the listening session. That bass is ever so slightly loose – it doesn't start and stop quite as quickly as some smaller amps I've heard. The subjective effect on things like kick drums is very subtle, yet something to keep in mind if your room has poor acoustics or your speakers aren't the tautest things down below. The other side of this is that the Electrocompaniet should help tame brighter systems, of course.
Don't be put off by the out-of-time looks – Electrocompaniet's AW250 R is a hugely impressive stereo power amplifier. It gives a taste of serious high-end sound at a mid-fi price. I used it with an MF Audio Passive preamp and also via my Chord Hugo TT2 DAC's balanced outputs, and in both cases it delivered musical fireworks, with a bold, gutsy and vibrant sound, cloaked in a smooth, dark tonal wrapper that suited my speakers down to the ground. Factor in serious build quality, and it's hard not to like.
David started his career in 1993 writing for Hi-Fi World and went on to edit the magazine for nearly a decade. He was then made Editor of Hi-Fi Choice and continued to freelance for it and Hi-Fi News until becoming StereoNET’s Editor-in-Chief.
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